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Sony Music Publishing Nashville’s engineer/studio manager Adam Engelhardt works with the best artists and musicians in Nashville every day and his goal for each tracking session is clear—be as efficient as possible in capturing the best sound from these exceptional performers. Toward that goal, the studio upgraded to an SSL Origin 32 console last year.
We sat down with Adam to talk about what inspired the decision to acquire the SSL, what it was like to work with David Fisk at Vintage King for the acquisition, how the console has impacted the workflow in the studio, and what it’s like to work with some of the best musicians in the world who are the mainstays of the Nashville music scene.
Tell us about your role at Sony Music Publishing Nashville.
We’re a country music publisher here in Nashville so our main focus is on songwriters and songs but we are fortunate to have a full-blown recording studio, SonyTree Studios, in our building and my job is to run the recording studio part of Sony which has been at this location since 1994. We have a large room and two smaller rooms and as far as scheduling, maintenance, and coordinating musicians for the various sessions goes, that kind of stuff is part of what I do.
My day-to-day job is managing the studio, but I also produce and engineer records. A lot of our clients will come in with their own engineers and producers, and those guys will use the studio; but then there are also clients who come in and they don't have anything lined up, so we'll help facilitate that. I also have clients myself that I've been working with since I started here so you know, some days I'm engineering, some days I'm just hanging out making sure everything's running smoothly for others; it's a pretty cool job.
How did you first get involved with music and audio production?
I was very fortunate because 19 years ago, I was an intern here at Sony; that was my very first job. I interned for about six weeks and it was a great time when I started in 2004. Sony was very, very busy at the time. There was a period of country music called “the Music Mafia days”, with artists like Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson, and a lot of others, and Sony Studios was the hub for that. We were just slammed busy all the time and when I was interning, it was like, “Hey, we really need somebody else to be on staff”, so I joined as an assistant engineer for a couple of years. Then, about 15 years ago, the previous manager, Pat McMakin, moved on to Ocean Way Studios. He was a great boss and when he moved on to a bigger studio I was like, “Well, hey, I'm here.” So I applied for the manager job and I was able to just step right into that. Basically, I’ve been here since the day I moved to town, which worked out pretty good.
What inspired you to upgrade to the SSL Origin 32 console?
Before we got the SSL Origin we had an older 60-channel desk, which was a great console. We were the second home for it–it had already been used for several years somewhere else in L.A. We had it for 16 or 17 years and it still sounded great but the maintenance and the upkeep were becoming overbearing; it was costing too much just to maintain it. We needed something that was a lot more efficient, something we could trust and know that it was going to last the whole day and not have any kind of breakdown or anything. It was time to retire it.
The Origin is a different-sounding console so it was a little bit of a change, but a lot of the sessions that we do are fast-moving, you know–time is money. It’s not unheard of for a three-hour session to need to record five, six, or even more songs with the whole band. We had a client here a couple of weeks ago that had an entire day booked and they did 30-plus songs in one day. The ease of the SSL was nice; it's just perfect in that anyone can walk in and work on it and pretty much know what to do when they walk into the session. We have a lot of different producers and engineers working here, so it needed to be something that–there's not a lot of curveballs with it. It just works great, it sounds good, it does its job and it’s clean. You don’t have to worry about a channel breaking down in the middle of a song or anything. That was the biggest reason.
What are some of your favorite features on the console?
It's really nice to have the SSL 2-Bus compressor; it’s such an awesome thing to have when you're listening to playback and then you're able to just put the whole mix through that compressor, that’s cool. It’s just the cleanliness of the whole console–the EQs are great, you can actually hear things happening when you're needing to make changes and the preamps are clean. It's just a really good console for our studio. We’re proud to have a lot of great outboard gear that has different flavors, so just using the SSL to kind of sum it all together is a really good situation.
What was the installation process like?
Getting the old console out was the hard part; it probably took about a month to just remove that–it had been there for more than 15 years. That was the most intense part, but the SSL was actually easy to put in; it all came pretty much done. We did have to do some patchbay wiring because not only did we install a new console, we also remodeled our whole studio. There was a lot of rewiring of outboard gear, stuff was being done to the walls, and to the floor; we had some extensive installation on other things too, but the SSL was fairly easy, it was just a matter of getting it in there. It has a much smaller footprint than the previous console, which was almost twice the length of the Origin and we just had to get kind of comfortable with it.
Thanks to Kevin Nimmo, Taylor Pollert, and Jonathan Massey, it was a very easy process. I thought it was going to be a lot harder, but it went awesome. From the moment it arrived, I would say two weeks later we were rocking. That's a really good turnaround! We use the console primarily to do tracking sessions–Monday through Friday, we're recording full bands all the time. We have done some mixing, but so far the majority has been tracking. That's pretty much what we're doing all the time–recording.
What was it like working with David Fisk at Vintage King to find the right gear?
David was great. You know, this was a substantial purchase for us and I'm the kind of guy where I like to use what we have and not necessarily spend a bunch of money for a bunch of new stuff. So buying a new console—that's a process, and when I called David the first time, I was really picking his brain about what we needed. We needed something that we could rely on and that anybody can walk in and use. He immediately pointed us to the Origin and he sold me on that after one or two conversations, so it was a great process.
What are some of your favorite pieces of outboard gear?
Neve 1073s are my favorite preamps, they sound great and classic to me; I love the Rupert Neve Designs preamps too. As far as compressors go, Tube-Tech CL 1Bs are great and then the Chandler LTD-2 and Neve 33609 compressors are kind of my go-to choices. I lean a little bit more towards microphone choices before I would lean towards outboard gear, because the kind of engineers that I have learned from the most–legends of acoustic audio like Bil VornDick and Gary Paczosa–their decisions on the classic records they’ve made are kind of what points me in the direction I start with. I like Neumanns, like the U67 and the KM86 and KM84, and a lot of older microphones. We have a great locker of microphones here at Sony, so it’s been nice to get to work with that on a regular basis.
What guides your microphone choices during tracking?
Well, as an engineer, you kind of have to know what everything can do. So when you first come in contact with your vocalist or your musician, whether it's a female or male vocalist or an acoustic guitar player, you have to have a starting point and then you have to judge the instrument. You have to listen to what they're doing, you have to listen to the sound of their voice or the tone of their instrument and then that helps you get even closer. It’s kind of hard to explain, just over time you kind of know where to start; it’s hard to explain, really. [Laughs]
I mean, the musicians in Nashville are the greatest in the world, in my opinion. And not only are they the greatest musicians, but they also have some of the greatest instruments in the world. I could be doing tracking sessions five days a week, and every day could be a different band and it's going to be pretty great every day. I mean, I can mess it up. [Laughs] That's what I'm getting at. I need to be able to be as efficient as I can, and I don't need to do much because these musicians are so in tune with what they're doing; they're on sessions every day, and they're putting out incredible sounds. It's a luxury working in Nashville, and I'm very grateful to be here.
The sound of country music has changed a lot over the past twenty years—does the current sound of what’s on the radio impact your workflow and process in the studio?
Yeah, to me it changes things a little bit but as far as recording goes, when you're tracking, that process is still about providing the musicians with a great mix they can be creative to and capturing the best sound you can. Now when it comes to mixing, a lot of things change based on what's on the radio; you might have to mix a different way, you have to approach your production a different way. But when it comes to capturing the sound of the band or the singer, I mean, it's basically the same thing that Al Schmitt was doing in the ‘60s. It’s about asking yourself, “What do you hear? What sounds great? What's going to capture it the best and not only individually, but when you put the whole band together—how is it going to sound as a band?”
I would say the biggest change I’ve noticed would be the amount of time that is spent in a large studio. When I was first starting, it wasn't unheard of for an artist to book a month or two months to do a whole project, whether it be an album or even a couple of songs. Budgets were a little bit bigger, they were able to spend a little bit more money on studio time and that kind of stuff. But I would say in the last 20 years, what’s changed is that they are now able to use a bigger studio to record the tracks but then they’ll move to a smaller studio or even to their house to do vocals and overdubs and sometimes the mixing too. So the length of time spent on a project is probably what's changed the most.
These days it seems like it's a lot easier to make a record; it doesn’t take as much time with the accessibility to the digital tools. Unless there's a truly huge project, you just don't need that much time anymore; it's easier to turn things around pretty quickly. Also, if you think about your fans, they want stuff quick too. It’s no longer, “Hey, we're going to take a year to make a record!” There is no downtime like that anymore.
Coming back to gear–what kind of monitors are you using in the studio?
We have some really good custom-made Genelec main monitors in our studio and they're great. I've been here 19 years so I'm used to them and that’s kind of what I like to listen to, but I also use Yamaha NS-10s. And right now I've been using the Focal Solo6 monitors; they're almost a little too good for a studio situation, but they sound really good and it's just kind of another option that I use.
What part do plug-ins play in your workflow?
I would say my workflow is probably 70% recording and the rest is mixing; I don't do a ton of mixing. So on the front end, I don't use a lot of plug-ins when I'm recording because I feel like if I'm having to use plug-ins, then I'm not achieving what I need to achieve with the gear I have now or with the microphone placement I'm doing. I mean, I'm blessed at Sony to have really good gear options so I don’t use a ton of plug-ins. When I’m mixing, again, the things that are sent to me are so good. So for me, plug-ins are really just a tool to kind of make things sound a little bit better. I mean, you're definitely not in a situation in Nashville of having to do any correction with plug-ins where something sounds horrible and I'm having to save it. 99% of the time it’s rocking when we get it, so it’s a good situation.
Do you have a go-to signal chain for recording, or do you use something different every time?
Probably depends on the instrument but I produce and engineer a lot of acoustic, bluegrass, and Americana music and there is a hyper-focus on making things sound really good and accurate. It has to be clean and you have to hear the full spectrum of the sound–you have to be super precise. For that, my go-to vocal mics are usually Neumann U67s.
There might be better-sounding vocal mics, but to me, the Neumann 67 is the best for when I'm having to blend a vocal into a mix. It sounds great every time and there are a few singers where I need to try something else, but I mean, 80% of the time I'm using the U67 and I have specific ones that I like, specific 67s that work well for certain singers. And then I always start with a Neve 1073 preamp, a Tube-Tech CL 1B and then I'll usually use a Pultec EQ, and that’s my vocal chain starting point.
If I'm doing acoustic guitars, I use Schoeps CMC 5 stereo mics for those, and then I'll also include a Neumann KM 86 and blend those in together. So I have two stereo mics and I’ll blend in a mono mic, that's a good sound for me; then I'll run that through GML preamps and a 33609 compressor. I'm just going to keep talking about acoustic stuff because that's really what I’m doing these days.
On a banjo, I use a Telefunken U48; 48s are mainly Neumanns, but we have a really great-sounding Telefunken 48, which is an old microphone and it just sounds great. I use it on banjo and I blend that in with the Shure SM57–the sound of the two together sounds great and I have a pair of Hardy mic preamps that I use for those.
For upright bass, I’ll use a RCA or Cloud Ribbon Mic in combination with a Neumann U47 FET and then I'll run that through the AEA 500 series preamps. On fiddle I use U67s and KM84s; same with the mandolin. I also have a great-sounding AKG C12 that I use on the mandolin and on the piano, I use a pair of Neumann KM 104s.
For drums, I'll use a Sennheiser 421 on the inside of the kick and a FET 47 on the outside, with an SM57 on the snare, and I have a really good pair of Neumann 87s that I'll use on the overheads, a KM84 on the hi-hat and EV 408s on toms. I have a C12 that I'll use as a mono room mic and then I can blend that in with two Coles 4038s on room mics. Our room at Sony is not a huge room, it's not massive, but it's got enough aliveness to it where you can really use room mics effectively and it works out good.
I don't use a lot of compression on anything really just because, while tracking, I'm a big fan of making the musicians hear very cleanly what they're playing so that the musicians are hearing a very accurate sound of what they're producing, and as a band, they're playing together. I don't compress a lot, I just make it so that they can hear well so that when there's a guitar solo, for example, they know to step in a little bit when they're playing, to be a little louder. Sometimes when you compress too much that eliminates that possibility and I don't use a ton of that.
Speaking of dynamics—country songs have always had room for dynamic range, unlike some other genres where the tracks are highly compressed and often sound very loud and very squashed. Does the current requirement for tracks to be as loud as possible pose a challenge for you in country music?
Yeah, you definitely run into that challenge because your song needs to be just as loud, if not louder than whatever song has played before yours. And it's not always the overall mix that needs to be louder. Sometimes it's just the vocal that needs to be louder—the singer needs to be in your face. That's not a bad thing if it's a good singer. Now with country music, there are a lot of great singers, so it really makes it easy to do that. And the musicians in Nashville, they know the exact role of being a backup band. They know how to completely support the singer and not overplay, not distract from the singer, to make the singer any less or more important than they should be.
But the compression battle is definitely still a thing. I feel like it's not as bad as it was maybe ten or fifteen years ago; I feel like that's more of a topic that we discussed all the time then, but I think people are learning to be more musical with how they use compression. So now, it's not just that from the second it begins to the second it ends, it’s loud and in your face; it's a lot more musical. You can hear things, you can hear everything; of course, you can hear the drums and the electrics, but you can also hear the acoustic guitars and the bass really well. In country music there's a wide range of instruments in the mix–there could be fiddles, there could be steel guitars and strings; a lot of different things. You don't need to push a compressor too hard; you just need to make it all gel really well.
Are you working on any exciting projects right now that you're able to talk about?
There are a couple of cool artists that are coming out that we'll be hearing soon on the radio: Trey Lewis is one of them and another is Ella Langley—we've done their records recently, in the last month or so. It's a good situation here at Sony Music Publishing—we get to see a lot of new artists here, a lot of new songwriters, and then a lot of established artists too. We have a session tomorrow for one of our longtime songwriters, Bobby Braddock, who's been a songwriter here at Sony for 50-plus years. He's an older writer but he still gets cuts, still writes number-one songs and he's a great songwriter; then next week we have a 19-year-old doing a record, so it's a pretty full spectrum of artists and writers here at Sony.
The cool thing about working here at Sony Music Publishing is that we have a lot of substantial songwriters that write here, but we also have a lot of new songwriters that are potentially the next big thing. So we're kind of on the front of their careers and we have the ability to support them, not only with a full-blown studio but with other great songwriters and great staff here as well.